How Trump Undermines the Push for Human Rights Abroad

Having a president who gets chummy with dictators and admires strongmen makes it hard to promote freedom and democracy.
June 23, 2020
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PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA - JUNE 30 (SOUTH KOREA OUT): A handout photo provided by Dong-A Ilbo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the South and North Korea on June 30, 2019 in Panmunjom, South Korea. U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un briefly met at the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) on Sunday, with an intention to revitalize stalled nuclear talks and demonstrate the friendship between both countries. The encounter was the third time Trump and Kim have gotten together in person as both leaders have said they are committed to the "complete denuclearization" of the Korean peninsula. (Handout photo by Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images/Getty Images)

The United States has a long record of criticizing its adversaries’ records on human rights—not just because a concern for liberty, justice, and democracy is baked into the nation’s DNA, but also because such criticism can be a valuable tool of foreign policy. The encouragement of senior American officials can inspire courage for rebellions and can guilt passive Europeans into taking actions against human-rights abusers.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been relying on this tactic a lot. But he is constantly being undermined by his boss’s conduct.

For instance, in April, the secretary tweeted to condemn the Hong Kong government’s violation of its citizens’ right to “peaceful assembly.” Six weeks later, the world watched as the Trump administration violently dispersed peaceful protesters near the White House.

Another example: On May 3, the spokesperson for the Department of State, Morgan Ortagus, posted a tweet, condemning the recent imprisonment by China of a journalist who had criticized the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It was a nice reminder of World Press Freedom Day. But just one day earlier, President Trump posted a tweet celebrating Kim Jong-un’s health. Kim’s North Korea ranks 180th out of 180 countries in this year’s Reporters Without Borders index of press freedom.

And another example, the most damning of all: John Bolton says that President Trump gave a nod to the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, to continue building concentration camps for Uighur Muslims. Assuming Bolton’s account is accurate, Trump’s actions represent an epic bankrupting of U.S. moral authority.

Some degree of hypocrisy is unavoidable, of course; the U.S. government is not a human-rights nonprofit and does not have the luxury of total consistency in adherence to its ideals. But in some cases, the hypocrisy is shameful and damaging.

As in the case of the Saudi government’s assassination of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. President Trump released a statement and swept the whole affair under the rug with realpolitik reasoning. Later, in a forum in Germany, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, was asked about Iran’s human rights record. He spent the entire time pointing out Western hypocrisy since Saudi Arabia had literally gotten away with murder.

Again, hypocrisy is inevitable—but this degree is unprecedented in the postwar era, and it can undermine the president’s agenda with the American people, adversarial dictators, and allies. When the president tried to attack Iran on the grounds of human rights and called for freedom in Iran, the American people who didn’t already support him called him a hypocrite and refused to support him. Zarif simply ignored the attempted shaming. Our allies, too, have been inattentive to America’s efforts to coerce Iran’s behavior, unless out of fear for secondary sanctions, because of this hypocrisy.

How many souls can Pompeo and Ortagus possibly hope to convince? In recent weeks, Ortagus has tweeted to condemn bigotry and to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. She has tweeted to condemn the CCP’s “xenophobia” against Africans in China. Secretary Pompeo, attacking China, talked of religious freedom in America and the rule of law. But their boss began his political career by questioning the citizenship of America’s first black president. He has been trying to make COVID-19 into a xenophobic campaign against the Chinese people. His 2016 campaign emphasized xenophobia toward Mexicans and Americans of Mexican descent, as well as Muslim Americans. This Trump record makes it hard for Trump administration officials to condemn other countries’ actions with a straight face.

How effective can a public diplomacy campaign be when the loudest member of that campaign undermines it at every turn—when the preaching government doesn’t practice what it preaches?

Most postwar presidents have at least paid lip service to human rights abroad. (Nixon is perhaps an exception.) Yes, the rhetoric didn’t always match the actions. Ronald Reagan gave many wonderful speeches about human rights and democracy, including his extraordinary Westminster address in 1982. But he also vetoed a bill that would have imposed sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa. George W. Bush’s second inaugural address was the most pro-liberalism speech ever delivered by a U.S. president. But Bush also hung out with the Saudi crown prince to get a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Barack Obama frequently spoke about human rights, but he also shook hands with Raul Castro and reached a nuclear deal with Iran that enriched the Iranian mullahcracy.

But nobody thinks that Reagan, Bush, or Obama actually liked dictators—just that they made bitter but necessary compromises. And, to a variety of degrees, they also pressured allies to open their societies, be it Reagan in Chile and South Korea, Bush in Egypt, or Obama in Saudi Arabia.

But no president has done what Trump has done—setting a terrible example here at home while celebrating grotesque human-rights violators abroad.

Nobody thinks that Trump cares about human rights. He has barely ever paid lip service to human rights, and indeed has endorsed human rights violations by the United States—as when he called for targeting families of terrorists, pardoned disgraceful war criminals, and called for tightening the freedom of the press. He joked about the Egyptian military strongman as “my favorite dictator.” His bromance with Kim Jong-un is unprecedented, unproductive, and downright bizarre. When he or members of his administration go to a reluctant American people for support for human rights in an adversarial state, it is very natural that people question their sincerity.

In foreign policy, shame goes a long way, too. Sovietologist (and Bulwark contributor) Tom Nichols once told me that Soviet leaders hated President Jimmy Carter because he kept lecturing them (even though he didn’t do much more than lecturing). They don’t hate the lectures because they are shamed by them. They hate them because the peoples and leaders of liberal countries are shamed for dealing with them. America’s European allies are, for many reasons, always reluctant to put too much pressure on dictatorships. Nevertheless, the European Union frequently passes human rights sanctions because European peoples are still sensitive to human rights abuses, which American leaders take advantage of frequently. The Trump rhetoric and record makes that aspect of U.S. public diplomacy that much harder.

Against our adversaries, we have the winning card. President Trump can’t play it.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri is a graduate student of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies. He grew up in Iran and left the country in 2011. He is currently seeking political asylum in the United States. Follow him @ShayKhatiri.